THE UL­TIMA EF­FECT

PC GAMER (UK) - - Feature -

Eas­ily the most im­por­tant se­ries of the era was Richard ‘Lord Bri­tish’ Gar­riott’s Ul­tima. The first, not in­clud­ing Gar­riott’s un­re­lated Akal­a­beth, came out in 1981, though it was re-coded and re-re­leased five years later. It was an im­pres­sive game for the time, of­fer­ing a top-down mode for ex­plor­ing the world, a first-per­son wire­frame dun­geon crawl­ing mode, and, for no par­tic­u­larly good rea­son ex­cept that he had space left on the disk, an outer space sec­tion where you shoot down TIE Fighters to be de­clared a ‘Space Ace’, and un­lock a time ma­chine that al­lows you to go back and kill the in­vul­ner­a­ble vil­lain Mondain be­fore he has a chance to be­come so. This mix­ing of gen­res and throw­ing in ran­dom ‘cool’ stuff for the heck of it wasn’t unique to Ul­tima – Wiz­ardry quickly de­vel­oped a taste for merg­ing fan­tasy and sci-fi – but this was still pretty sur­pris­ing at the time. Still, Ul­tima was sim­ply an­other pop­u­lar RPG un­til Ul­tima IV. Table­top RPGs were tak­ing a lot of flak from the moral mi­nor­ity at this point, up to and in­clud­ing be­ing ac­cused of pro­mot­ing Satanism (magic, demons, all that good stuff ). PC RPGs were no dif­fer­ent. Fed up with this, or so the story goes, Gar­riott de­cided to make Ul­tima IV about some­thing un­ques­tion­ably pos­i­tive – the quest to be­come a bet­ter per­son. While there are mon­sters and dun­geons, there’s no big cack­ling vil­lain. In­stead, win­ning means com­ing to em­body the Eight Virtues of Truth, Hon­esty, Com­pas­sion, Justice, Sac­ri­fice, Spir­i­tu­al­ity, Hu­mil­ity and Valor, to be­come the Avatar of Virtue; a sym­bol to look up to. This meant, for in­stance, not mur­der­ing peace­ful crea­tures for their XP, or pay­ing for goods with stolen gold.

This put Ul­tima on a fas­ci­nat­ing path. Each new game not only of­fered a new en­gine, of­ten stretch­ing the lim­its of cur­rent PC power, but set about try­ing to tell a story that mat­tered. Hav­ing ex­plored the Virtues in Ul­tima IV, Ul­tima V flips them. You re­turn to Ul­tima’s world, Bri­tan­nia, to find it un­der the control of a tyrant called Black­thorn, who is us­ing the Virtues as weapons of moral ab­so­lutism. If you do not com­pas­sion­ately give half your in­come to char­ity, then you lose all of it. If you do not correctly sup­port virtue, then you’re a heretic. It’s the

RPGs were tak­ing flak, acc used of pr omot­ing Satanism

Avatar’s job to de­pose him and the three Shad­owlords who have per­verted his think­ing.

Ul­tima VI is ar­guably the clever­est of the set. This time you’re re­called to find Bri­tan­nia un­der siege by an army of de­monic look­ing ‘gar­goyles’ who are try­ing to de­stroy the Shrines of Virtue. Ev­ery­one, in­clud­ing ‘wise’ Lord Bri­tish (cue hol­low laugh­ter from ev­ery Ul­tima player) wants you to sally forth and beat up these mon­sters. In prac­tice, though, the whole story is an al­le­gory for racism and the im­por­tance of com­mu­ni­ca­tion – the gar­goyles re­vealed to not be an evil species, but one with their own moral codes and sense of hon­our. Most im­por­tantly, they have a valid grudge against both Bri­tan­nia and the Avatar – the quest in Ul­tima IV hav­ing de­stroyed their home­world. The next two games would pick up on the ease with which re­li­gion can be sub­verted, and ex­plore the idea of the ends jus­ti­fy­ing the means – the Avatar stuck on a world that he ul­ti­mately has to sac­ri­fice in or­der to re­turn home and deal with a big­ger threat.

Ul­tima raised the bar of the types of sto­ries RPGs could tell, and proved they could be about some­thing. It didn’t hurt that, along with this, the se­ries con­tributed heav­ily to the grow­ing genre – ad­vanc­ing what was pos­si­ble with ev­ery new game. Ul­tima VII in par­tic­u­lar stood as proof that an RPG could look gor­geous with­out sac­ri­fic­ing de­tail, (as long as you could ac­tu­ally run it.) It brought di­a­logue trees and day/night NPC sched­ules to the se­ries, and its sim­u­la­tion el­e­ments have yet to truly be bet­tered. Play­ers could shear sheep, spin the wool into yarn and then weave it into cloth. Or com­bine flour and wa­ter to make dough, then cook it to make bread. The se­ries proper sadly ended in shame in 1999, with Ul­tima IX:

As­cen­sion, but Gar­riott is cur­rently work­ing on what he hopes to be a re­turn to the se­ries’ high points – Shroud of the Avatar, com­ing out soon.

ltima VI: The False Prophet rakkhen

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